Thursday 8 June 2017

King Arthur: Legend Of The Sword (2017) - Movie Review

While a lot of the music-loving world still adheres to the idea that Yoko Ono cost us one of the greatest bands to ever touch an instrument, I subscribe to a similar but far less recognised notion. Namely, that Madonna cost the art of cinema one of its potential legendary filmmakers. Guy Ritchie, as has been discussed on this blog before, was responsible for one of my all-time favourite films with Snatch. After that feature, and hooking up with Madonna, Ritchie took one of the biggest stumbles of any filmmaker still working today.
Between the star-vehicle-cum-wrong-headed remake of an Italian classic with Swept Away, to the equally wrong-headed attempt to merge Ritchie’s British crime sensibilities with the teachings of Kabbalah with Revolver, the man found prominence in Hollywood from then on but he never managed to recapture that flame he once had. However, even considering the story we have today, it seems that he has indeed gotten back to his roots… in the single weirdest way possible. Let’s get started with today’s film and I’ll explain how.
The plot: Arthur (Charlie Hunnam), a street-wise urchin on the streets of Londinium, operates his small criminal operation amidst rumours of the “Borne King”, the true heir to the throne that can take power away from the evil wizard Vortigern (Jude Law). As the past king Uther Pendragon (Eric Bana)’s sword Excalibur resurfaces, and Arthur manages to pull it from its stone, Arthur finds himself embroiled in a battle against Vortigern’s tyranny and restore order to the kingdom.

The cast here is decent, but honestly not that special. Hunnam, for the version of Arthur he’s been given, does admirably with the material and embodies the kind of hard-nosed and gruff thuggish Brit that Ritchie once made his mark with back in the day. Aidan Gillen, in an against-type protagonist role, manages to fit his usual slimy and roguish mannerisms into the performance without it feeling beyond his station. Neil Maskell and Kingsley Ben-Adir as Arthur’s long-time allies work very well in their scenes with Hunnam, giving us a glimpse of a completely different (and potentially better) film underneath the Arthurian polish.
Law only really gives a quantifiable performance in the scenes where he pays tribute to the Syrens, being rather bland as a main villain otherwise, and Àstrid Bergès-Frisbey as The Mage is quite horrendous, to be brutally honest, giving an incredibly stiff and abrasive performance that legitimately brings joy whenever a scene occurs without her in it. Knowing Ritchie’s less-than-feminist stylings, this might have been an intentional move (making the only female character in the main cast the least engaging to watch) but regardless, she is the black spot on an otherwise just okay cast list.

This film plays out far more like a traditional British gangster flick rather than anything to do with knights and sorcery, largely embodied through Arthur’s criminal dealings and the rapid-fire slang-heavy snarking that goes on between him and pretty much anyone else in earshot. I have no real issue with this, as playful anachronisms can make for rather entertaining cinema (e.g. A Knight’s Tale) but it feels way too disjointed here to reach that goal.
For one, the film seems far more willing to delve into the criminal and ‘rebelling against the false ruler’ aspects than the Arthurian legend itself, making the scenes that actually do pertain to it feel out-of-place even though they are supposed to be the main crux of the story. For another, even the characters seem to want nothing to do with the story of King Arthur, with Arthur himself spending most of the film trying his best to avoid joining the resistance and generally avoiding anything to do directly with Vortigern.

It probably doesn’t help that, whether Ritchie and co. actively wanted to do a story about King Arthur or not, both sides of the story are handled rather poorly. The street dealings are largely shown through montage, including the majority of Arthur’s upbringing that could have filled up a decent amount of the film on its own, and exceptionally shoddy montage at that. Along with being one of the bigger signifiers of the anachronisms at work, editor James Herbert saw fit to arrange the individual shots in the most disorienting way possible.
This ends up being something carried over in the Arthurian sections, with Arthur’s baptism of fire in the Blacklands being arranged out of order for no real reason other than to appeal to Ritchie’s non-continuity style of storytelling. Except here, because events are either purposely placed in a jumbled order or key events keep being shown over and over again, just with new bits added to them each time, it serves less as a showing of the filmmakers’ skill and more just a test of the audience’s patience. Arthur is shown complaining about a headache during one of the montages, and quite frankly, I don’t bloody blame him.

Probably the biggest showing of Ritchie’s reluctance with the material is that, when it comes to detailing the Arthurian world of might and magic, he seems to assume an awful lot of the audience. I say that because many of the aspects of this world from the use of magic to the sword to the creatures we see like the Syrens, all of whom apparently have concrete rules to their respective existences, are barely touched upon and just end up furthering the feeling of dissonance that the dialogue and editing is already drilling into the heads of the audience.
This isn’t aided by the aspects of filmmaking that are specifically designed to adhere to the Arthurian story, namely the production design and the soundtrack. Now, the production design is okay for a medieval setting but the very drab colour palette makes it hard to really appreciate, not helped by how it just feels like a stone-built façade to cover up the crime drama just under the surface.
The music, on the other hand, starts out well enough with its very rustic instrumentation that helps set the scene better than the actual scenery at times. However, once we get into the breathing that gets used as its own instrument in the compositions, things get really annoying really bloody quickly. It’s like composer Daniel Pemberton just heard Kanye West’s Black Skinhead for the first time and wanted to make a sound-alike, only overdoing it on the vocal additions to the point of eventual madness. Coming from the guy who gave us the incredibly well-structured score for Steve Jobs, I frankly expected better.

All in all, while definitely a better attempt to merge Guy Ritchie’s Brit-hard mannerisms with a different kind of story than what he’s done in the past (looking at you, Revolver), it still isn’t all that good. The gangster and would-be king halves of the story, even for a potentially intentional anachronistic aesthetic, do not mesh well together and neither side is done that good on their own to begin with. Add to that a rather basic cast, a script that doesn’t seem to know what it’s doing and a soundtrack that gets old in record time, and you have the kind of film that I unfortunately have come to expect from Guy Ritchie nowadays. And to make matters worse, considering Ritchie is attached to the upcoming live-action remake of Disney’s Aladdin, chances are that I’ll be repeating a lot of these issues all over again before too long.

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